Saturday, October 5, 2013

In the footsteps of Robert P. Bliss

Several months back, a friend who is not in my profession asked me, "who was Pennsylvania's most important librarian, ever?" It seems like such a simple question, but it's impossible for me to answer. First of all, my work primarily focuses on the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so I am reluctant to name anyone as the best "ever" when my knowledge of other time periods is limited. Also, since there are no articles, books, or dissertations that broadly survey the history of librarianship in Pennsylvania, and my own research is incomplete, I bet there are quite a few important librarians I simply haven't encountered yet.

These disclaimers made, though, I would encourage anyone to learn these names: Helen Price, Anna MacDonald, Evelyn Matthews, and Robert Bliss. All were longstanding employees of the Pennsylvania Free Library Commission, later subsumed by the Extension Division of the State Library of Pennsylvania. They are due at least partial credit for founding dozens, if not hundreds, of free public libraries throughout the state. There may have been others in the Commission or Extension Division that are worth mentioning, but Price, MacDonald, Matthews, and Bliss are the ones that I've encountered repeatedly in documents at the Pennsylvania Library Association Archives and in the historical records of various public libraries.

At this point, there are many gaps in my knowledge about their lives and work. Helen Underwood Price was hired as a "library organizer" sometime between 1906 and 1908. There is a delightful article she published in ALA Bulletin (see the volume for 1910, pages 715-721) in which she describes the many challenges of establishing public libraries in Pennsylvania.

I am not sure precisely when Anna A. MacDonald came to Harrisburg, but I can place her as an employee at Penn State's library (main campus, State College, Centre County) from 1895 or 1896 through 1906 or 1907 (Pennsylvania State College, 1907/1908 Annual Report). Later at SLP, she traveled all over Pennsylvania to speak with community agencies and to assist them in organizing libraries. MacDonald  was also a frequent lecturer, if not one of the original organizers, of a summer training program for library staff held annually at Penn State that started in 1911. Within the  historical files in the SLP director's office, there is a fascinating typescript of a speech she gave in 1917 describing her efforts. From 1924 to 1927, MacDonald served as acting State Librarian. According to her obituary, she remained with SLP until her retirement in 1931 or 1932 (Centre Daily Times, May 22, 1954). 
Of Evelyn Matthews, I can only say, judging from correspondence I've seen, that she worked for the Extension Division for at least 15 and possible as many as 20 years -- from the 1910s through 1930s, roughly. 

The stories of Price, MacDonald, and Matthews are no less compelling than that of Robert P. Bliss, but it is him that I often think about when I am on the road, especially when driving to Erie and Warren. Formerly the librarian at Crozer Theological Seminary (in Upland, Delaware County), Bliss was hired in 1906 as the Assistant Secretary of the Pennsylvania Free Library Commission. In the first years of his tenure, he was sent into the field to develop a list of all the public libraries in the state. By undertaking such a "survey," he was able to share with State Library Thomas Lynch Montgomery eyewitness reports of the distribution, efficiency, and quality of services. One of the first regions he visited was Northwestern Pennsylvania, where I am doing research now. While here, he met with teachers in 20 different counties to discuss traveling libraries with them. He also made sure that "the newspapers were interested in the work of the Commission" (State Library of Pennsylvania, 1906 Annual Report). After the Commission hired Helen Price, it seems that Bliss stayed closer to home. By the 1910s, much of the correspondence I have seen under his signature pertains to library law, policy, and standards. In 1937, he wrote a booklet, A History of the State Library of Pennsylvania, which stands today as the best description of the library yet written. 

Like Bliss, I have spent a great deal of time on the road. And like him, I write about the history of libraries. I hope in time I will evolve the broad and long view of librarianship that he did. 

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